Pandemic-fatigued Americans are overrunning national parks

There’s an epidemic of post-pandemic visitors at national parks.

Lockdown-weary Americans are flocking to the nation’s most beautiful natural environments en masse — to the degree that it’s causing an overcrowding problem at the parks and in nearby towns. 

“Anywhere you go, there’s going to be a line,” Libby Preslock told the Wall Street Journal following a recent visit to Utah’s Arches National Park. Preslock arrived at the park at 9 a.m., only to learn that it was full. Signs recommended eager visitors try back in three to five hours, so she decided to try her luck at Canyonlands, another national park in the area.

There, too, she encountered a wait but was able to enter after an hour. 

The wait times were not a one-off, but part of a recent trend: About 194,000 people visited Arches in April, a 15% increase from the number of visitors in 2019 — and a 100% increase from April 2020, when it was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Journal reported. 

Canyonlands saw a 30% increase in visitors in April, compared with April 2019. 

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the increase is significantly due to more first-timers checking out the parks. 

In addition to causing hours-long park entry wait times, the increased attendance makes the parks less enjoyable to visit, some say. 

Visitors take in the sunrise at Maine's Acadia National Park in May.
Visitors take in the sunrise at Maine’s Acadia National Park in May.

“Out of the five national parks, this is probably one of the most unique, but I definitely wouldn’t say it’s my favorite because there’s too many people,” said recent Arches visitor Susan Mathews of her experience. 

The new popularity has also caused an overrunning of limited park campsites.  

“People could be parked right next to a sign that says ‘closed to camping’ and they’re just like, ‘But the app said it was open,’ ” Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, a field manager in Moab — where Arches is located — told the Journal. 

Visitors watch black bears in Yellowstone National Park on June 8. Yellowstone is seeing a record number of visitors since all entrances were opened for the tourist season.
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The solution is not yet clear, but many local business owners are against establishing the same kinds of reservation systems that have been installed at California’s Yosemite National Park and Maine’s Acadia National Park. 

“I think it will kill our economy,” said Kent Green, owner of Moab Cowboy Country Offroad Adventures, of requiring reservations for entry, as he believes such a policy will discourage last-minute visitors from coming to Moab.